Management Information Systems — A Hit with Printers
Advocating for the use of a computerized management information system can have the feel of preaching to the converted. The true believers have already invested the money and resources to implement a system, gotten staff buy-in, and they routinely act on the data collected.
There are less ardent converts, though, who have only implemented select components of an integrated MIS or are so focused on day-to-day operations that they can’t capitalize on the business information being gathered. There are also those shops not actively using an MIS solution for various reasons, a key one being the investment involved.
Today’s business demands are causing even the true believers to re-examine the role of MIS in a modern printing operation. As more shops get into digital printing, they need a management solution that is efficient and responsive enough to handle the order volumes, dollar amounts and quick turnaround requirements of the market segment.
Digital work is also a big driving force behind the adoption of Web-to-print, which is enhanced by MIS integration. Interfacing the systems provides the opportunity to capture job information upfront and augments customer service, by providing immediate reporting of job status and enabling online inventory management.
The growing importance of MIS in digital printing environments was reflected in the two sessions devoted to the subject at the recent On Demand Conference. Also, a dozen or so solutions were demonstrated in the exhibit hall.
In one session, Paul Rothstein, CEO of Next Generation Printing (Nextgen) in Canton, MA, recounted how concern that the shop’s previous MIS package was no longer going to be supported by the vendor led him to seek a new solution. Another reason for making a change was customer interest in online ordering, he noted.
Expanding on his presentation in a follow-up interview, Rothstein says he sees the requirements for handling digital printing work as being basically the same as offset, but job processing needs to be very fast and as automated as possible. Since the dollar value of a digital order generally is a fraction of offset work, a printer will lose money if it spends as much time and effort processing the two types of jobs, he explains.
After a false start with another system, Nextgen is now running a plant-wide, integrated MIS package from Enterprise Print Management Solutions (EPMS). It is using a separate system from Online Print Solutions (OPS) to provide Web-to-print capabilities, including online ordering and proofing, to its customers. That capability was already in place when the printer looked to replace its MIS. OPS’s OrderDesk automatically submits a work order to the shop’s digital pressroom for processing, but those jobs ultimately are manually entered into EPMS for invoicing.
The shop’s other work, both digital and offset printing, is all processed through the MIS. Since a lot of orders come in on a rush basis, Nextgen needed the capability to put a job into production even before generating a formal quote. “We’ll reverse-engineer the work order into a quote, after we’ve already done the work in order to get the invoice out,” notes Rothstein.
Nextgen currently has about 90 full-time workers and operates out of one building. Every department manager and a number of operators had an opportunity to evaluate its current MIS system before the final decision was made. Rothstein wanted to make sure that the product was easy enough and quick enough to enable live data collection on every job, including very short runs.
The printing exec says he learned a lot from the company’s previous one-year system install. “You really need to know your own business and what benefits you want from the system,” he advises. “Also, we rolled this one out over time. We started using some modules in January, and there are a couple we haven’t started to use yet.”
In his On Demand presentation, Jay Mandarino, president of C.J. Graphics, listed knowing the shop’s real costs, eliminating the rekeying of job data over and over, and enabling real-time job tracking as top bullet points for why C.J. Graphics replaced its MIS. The diverse company, based in Toronto, needed a system that could support its full range of printing capabilities—including digital, large-format and offset printing—as well as value-added services such as mailing and fulfillment. In addition, management has established a requirement that all new equipment it acquires be JDF (Job Definition Format) compatible.
Module by Module
About three years ago, the printer signed a deal for a complete MIS solution from Avanti Computer Systems, but stipulated that it would acquire and implement the various modules in stages, Mandarino says. “Doing it all at once is too hard, with so many changes and so many people involved. We bought the estimating system first and waited a good year before next adding the accounting module. We still have two modules left to go.”
C.J. Graphics’ main business is comprised of five separate operations, and it has a sales office in Miami. It also has partial ownership of two companies located in another facility in Toronto. The combined organization has roughly 80 full-time and 20 part-time employees.
Mandarino believes a critical step was having one person take control of the implementation process and be the point person that everyone could go to. “We thought about using an IT person, but it didn’t work. We ended up having our general manager fill that role, and he assembled a support team that included somebody from estimating, IT and accounting. You can’t just plug it (a new MIS) in and have it work out of the box.”
That aspect of implementing a system can be challenging, particularly for a smaller company, notes the company exec. “Everybody thinks it’s the software cost. The true investment will be double the software cost because of all the man hours and time involved in getting an MIS implemented.”
The topic of JDF elicits a wry laugh, even from Mandarino, but he believes the process integration promised by broad implementation of the specification will happen down the road. He wants the company to be ready.
C.J. Graphics is already sending job information from its Avanti system to prepress and press. Its president sees bigger benefits coming from being able to pass data to the bindery for job setup, but that’s on hold until the shop adds new equipment. The company is currently using shop floor data collection to report information, such as machine and operator time, back to the MIS.
The printer has written some custom software and integrated solutions from several vendors in order to offer sophisticated Web- to-print capabilities. Through personalized stores, customers can place a straightforward order ranging from stationery components to complex variable data projects with 10 to 15 varying elements. This system is interfaced to the MIS.
In researching the options, Mandarino says he found that the pricing and functionality of complete MIS solutions tend to be very similar, which can make it tough to pick one. He recommends doing research on the vendor to try to get a sense of whether it will be there for the long haul to provide ongoing support and development of the product. “We interviewed the owners (of Avanti) and checked out the users group to see if the company really listened to customers’ needs,” he says.
JDF integration is still expected to be one of the important areas of development in MIS technology. The creation of Interoperability Conformance Specifications (ICS) and the establishment of an independent product certification program are seen as key steps toward broad implementation of this cross-vendor, job data communication capability.
Last summer, the CIP4 (International Cooperation for the Integration of the Processes in Prepress, Press and Postpress) organization and PIA/GATF announced the latter would be launching the first JDF certification program. Certifications based on the ICS for “MIS to Prepress” and “MIS to Conventional Sheetfed Printing” were supposed to be among the first testing being offered.
In the intervening time, Dr. Mark Bohan, PIA/GATF’s vice president, research and technology, says a strategic decision was made by the vendors, predominantly, to wait for new ICS documents to be written for the JDF 1.3 revision, rather than pursue certification testing based on JDF 1.2. There were some functional changes introduced in JDF 1.3 that were considered especially valuable for MIS-related operations.
Updated versions of the ICS documents were set to be published in early summer. Bohan expects PIA/GATF to be ready to begin certification testing based on the “MIS to Prepress” and “MIS to Conventional Sheetfed Printing” ICS within a month of their release.
There is still very strong interest in JDF within the vendor community and a commitment to certification, he says. “They want this to be rigorous testing and not just rubber stamping. The intent is to ensure that a product is fully communicating all the job information it is supposed to and appropriately processing the information it receives. Getting to that degree of rigor slows down the process,” Bohan says. PI